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Speaking with Dennis Watkins of ‘The Magic Parlour’

Dennis Watkins 'The Magic Parlour' Palmer House Hilton.

Dennis Watkins in "The Magic Parlour" at the Palmer House Hilton.

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♦ Open run; 8:30 and 10 p.m. Fridays

♦ Palmer House Hilton,
17 E. Monroe

♦Tickets, $75

♦ (773) 769.3832;

Call him Chicago’s official magic man.

Actor-professional magician Dennis Watkins wouldn’t necessarily disagree. Every Friday night, Watkins — who is perhaps most familiar to Chicago theatergoers for his role as actor, writer, director and founding member of the House Theatre company — performs “The Magic Parlour,” a 75-minute highly interactive magic show at the Palmer House Hilton in front of 30 or so “guests.”

In a an intimate and inviting parlor setting, Watkins masterfully celebrates the almost lost art of close-up magic in one of the most entertaining evenings of live theater. There is no massive spectacle, no pyrotechnics, no levitating, no walking through walls or making monuments disappear. But there is plenty of jaw-dropping magic to be had.

Question:Where did your passion for magic originate?

Dennis Watkins: I grew up learning to do magic from my granddad, who was a professional magician and ran a magic shop. I took theater classes in middle school and then studied acting in college, and ultimately moved to Chicago to start the House Theatre with my friend Nathan Allen. In the last six years or so I started working a lot as a magician for private parties, corporate events and college events. “The Magic Parlour” started in 2010 when Nate (artistic director at House) said let’s do a fund-raiser for the theater with your magic show. So we did it, it was really fun and we raised money. Nate called me the next day and said what if we did a weekly, late-night magic show? So that’s where “Magic Parlour” started and we did every Friday night at the Chopin Theatre in Wicker Park. It was this wonderful, quirky, perfect fit for Wicker Park.

Q.How did “Magic Parlour” arrive at the Palmer House?

DW: It made perfect sense to move it because at the Palmer House (in January) because the show needed to grow. It’s a bit more sophisticated now; it’s set in this very parlor-like room, complete with a fireplace. We seat about 35 people, which keeps it very intimate. It’s perfect for the up-close magic that I love to do. I like the interaction this setup allows. At one point I have the entire audience just literally gather round me for a card trick. In the course of a 75-minute show I’ll use about 25 people from the audience.

Q.How daunting was it to start a theater company?

DW: We were crazy, so it didn’t seem daunting. Our first show was at Live Bait Theatre in 2001, seating 30 people for the original “Death and Harry Houdini.” It didn’t feel like we were reaching for Broadway. We were just excited and stupidly ambitious about it. After we got “Houdini” on its feet, then it became daunting.

Q.Speaking of Houdini, you just came off a critically acclaimed, sold-out run in that show’s remount earlier this year. Are you a big Houdini fan?

DW: In that first show 10 or so years ago, there was no big magic in that staging, no water torture, no walking on glass and it had a distinctively different storyline, which was fine. I had loved Houdini forever, but I had never been extremely interested in doing his “big magic,” which was the bulk of what he was famous for. Until Nate said here’s the script [for the remount] and you have to do the water torture cell. I said, well that seems really stupid since I have no idea how I’m going to do it, but I said yes anyhow. In the course of [the new] show I really fell in love with who Houdini was and what he achieved.

Q.What did your training entail to master that water torture cell escape?

DW: Well, I can swim so that was a start, but the breath-holding was by far the most daunting part. It just came down to months and months of practice just holding my breath for longer stretches of time, and doing a lot of stretching, the same stretching I did when I took voice lessons in college to build as much lung capacity as possible. I did a lot of yoga and submerging myself in my bathtub for as long as I could.

Q.What’s the favorite magic trick you do in “Magic Parlour”?

DW: Probably the one where I’m completely blindfolded with the duct tape and mask and I have to divine what objects have been offered up by three audience members.

Q.What about the “balloon guy” routine, in which you wind up completely inside a giant inflated balloon?It’s priceless!

DW: That’s my second favorite. You can’t keep from giggling when you see a grown man climb inside a giant balloon, right? I combined it with the classic playing card reveal just to keep it really interesting.

Q.What’s magical about doing magic?

DW: It’s so imaginative. There’s no end to what you can conceivably do.

Q.Have you ever divulged the secret to one of your tricks?

DW: As my grandad would tell me, the secrets and methods are not very precious. They’re not where the essential part of magic lies. The essential part of it is in the wonder you create for your audience.

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